editorial (2006-05)

The Economics of Teaching

Don’t cut foreign-language education or driver’s training, please

The Economics of Teaching

Superintendent Charles Lindsey says the Knox County Schools budget for 2006-07 may experience a $5 million shortfall. That ugly prospect was met last week by Lindsey’s suggestions to the school board for cuts in operating costs. None of the proposed cuts, except one that would create more efficient allocation of teachers and staff among the schools, seemed palatable. That one recommendation, though, would save nearly half of the money needed to offset the shortfall.

Two of the other cost-saving measures, the elimination of foreign-language instruction in middle schools and driver’s training in high schools, were met with skepticism by the school board. Good for the board members who objected.

Foreign-language instruction at the earliest possible school level is among the most foresighted of curriculum options, and driver’s ed may be the most practical course taught in public high schools. Where to begin in defending these educational essentials?

Teaching as many young people as possible the elements of safe operation of motor vehicles has a profound effect on traffic safety in any community. Witness the insurance industry’s discounting of premium rates for young drivers who have passed a driving course in school.

The insurance industry doesn’t do so on faith. The insurers rely on statistics that show that school-educated drivers have fewer accidents, thereby costing the companies fewer claims. The upshot of driver education offerings across the board is that, with fewer accidents in a community, all vehicle owners’ insurance rates are lower. To take away the option of driver training as a budget concession would be tantamount to increasing the risk to motorists as well as hiking their auto insurance rates over the next several years. Ironically, the superintendent’s suggestion comes at a time when fatal accidents involving high-school students here have drawn a great deal of attention.

That awful aspect of the Knox County experience lately is apparently lost on the superintendent, but not on the school-board members who opposed it. Surely, when the budget is published in its final form to send to County Commission, driver’s ed will not have been tampered with.

In the larger picture, the teaching of foreign languages has become, in the 21st century, a very important component of public schooling. It should be offered earlier than middle school—studies have shown that students learn foreign languages much more easily at younger ages—but at the least it should be retained at that level.

The number of people from other, non-English-speaking countries living in Knoxville nearly doubles with each census, and the jobs and careers opening up here in the increasingly global economy require more and more of us to understand other cultures in their own terms, which don’t always coincide with ours. China, for instance, this nation’s second-ranked trading partner, approached the 21st century without a word in Chinese meaning “privacy.” That’s not a concept that’s just lost in translation, it’s an idea that has to be kept in mind in dealing with the Chinese on a variety of issues, which we’re going to be called upon to do as that giant country’s economic and political impact continues to grow.

Study of any of the Romance or Germanic languages provides a student of English with a background in derivation that leads to much better English usage. But any other language is better than none.

Not only does the study of a second language improve one’s comprehension of the intricacies of English, it allows for much easier learning of third and fourth languages and demonstrates to businesses, industries and scholars around the world that we are not an insular community. We should be willing to acknowledge that communication among peoples abroad or from abroad cannot always be conducted in our own language.

English may be the most useful communications form in world business today, but that’s largely because Europeans and educated people in China and, particularly, the Indian Subcontinent and in Africa, chose to teach it as a second language early in their schools. That convenience to us may not always be the case, even in the lifetimes of the people entering public schools here today.

Communication is not just advancing and changing as technology changes, the languages themselves in general use on the Internet are many, varied, and incomprehensible by anyone with no background in language learning beyond that of his or her native land.

To think that the lack of a couple of million dollars in the budget of Knox County, now approaching $600 million, can’t be found to teach young people safe driving, let alone offer them the basis in a second language that’s become so vital in this day and age, would be a sad commentary on the whole community. Such cuts would expose the community as one with a patently unrealistic idea of its young generation’s educational needs.

Are we ready to concede that?